Hangchow was the capital of China in the Sung Dynasty. It is one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Marco Polo described it as a place "where so many pleasures may be found that one fancies himself to be in Paradise." Dr. Sun Yat-sen, father of the Chinese Republic, meditated here often, and Chairman Mao himself is said to have a summer home in Hangchow, although no one claims to know where it is. It is a poetic town. Its spiritual center is old West Lake, and the lake and its heart seem to have been there for eternity.
Now we were up at five a.m., scooting in our car along the shores of the lake in deep gray morning light. The water was completely hidden, gone beyond the lip of the earth, it seemed, in the mist. Great willows hung like black lace-torn moss. All was silent. Here and there someone stood on the grassy bank, facing into the endless days of the lake, rhythmically swinging his arms.
We were bound for Park Six. Other sections in the area had lovely names—Orioles Singing in the Willows, Autumn Moon on the Calm Lake. But this was Park Six. Cooke and I had slept lightly that night, for the arboretum in the back of the Hangchow Hotel was filled with tree frogs—raucous, belching, bellowing little fellows whose voices rose like a full zoo symphony in the Chinese darkness. We had also drunk deeply of something that seemed magnificent at the time; it was called fen chiu, a nitroglycerin-colored juice distilled from rice, 160 proof, it was said. We had drunk it over ice, pretending it was martinis.
Now in the dawn we arrived in the mists of Park Six, and here was a wondrous sight, a fantasy we could scarcely believe. Among the black tree trunks on the shore, spreading out like their own shadows in the gloom of the walkways and driveways, we saw a vast and ghostly assembly of people. While most of the ancient city slept, here were hundreds silently moving in the classic slow-motion of wu shu, unreal in the cool smoke of dawn.
I stood rooted for a time near our car. There were people moving everywhere in the mist, trancelike, lethargic, graceful, many in unison though no cadence sounded. They seemed to be dreaming, a floating population, adrift there in the dim morning.
An old woman, her teeth browned or gone, came to talk to me while Cooke crept about amid the silent moving shadows with his cameras. She was tiny, alert and fiery with energy. She wore black baggy trousers and a loose gray blouse, and she said that her name was Mrs. Chiang and that she was 64 years old. She said she came to Park Six every day, rain or shine.
"I suffered from many chronic diseases for 10 years," she said, gazing at me with eyes that glowed. "I could not move at all. Then, on March 17, 1963, I remember the day well, I began coming to Park Six. I couldn't even walk here; I had to hire a pedicab to carry me. I could scarcely move at all then...now I find it easy to climb a mountain, to walk as many miles as I wish. I am light as a child in both foot and mind."
Mrs. Chiang said she had invented many of her exercises herself, "although I absorbed much of wu shu into them. From my ideas for exercises you get 1) better appetite, 2) better state of mind and 3) your sleep is better, deeper, with fewer dreams." She explained that there were several stages to her system of exercise. The major theme behind it all was to "breathe fresh air because after sleeping all night, dirty things collect in your organs and they must be squeezed out. Fresh air does the squeezing out."
She then began to demonstrate each of her exercises and to explain the result brought on by each:
1) Slapping each hand against opposite upper arm: "This helps the motion of cells to begin inside your body."